5 Quick Questions with “Philadelphia: The World War I Years” Author Pete Williams

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One cool thing about quizzo is that a lot of our quizzers are working on really creative and cool projects. One of them is Pete Williams. Pete, who has played intermittently over the years with the Jams, is a huge history buff, and he recently took his fascination with World War I to the next level, writing a book about Philadelphia during the war for Arcadia Press. Furthermore, he has one of the most interesting pages on Facebook for Philadelphia history buffs: it follows the news of the city 100 years ago today. Really, really cool.

With the 100th year anniversary of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand just a few days ago, I thought I’d talk to him about his fascination with WWI, how the War impacted Philly, and what he learned while working on this project. This is a really neat interview. Enjoy.

JGT: What inspired you to write about Philadelphia during World War I?

PETE: I’ve always been a bit of a history buff. I’ll read anything on historical events that I come across. But World War I has always been something that fascinates me. I think that probably comes from my maternal grandmother. I would sit at her kitchen table and she would tell me stories about what life was like “in the old days” while she was cooking. She also had a big scrapbook that she made during WWI with picture and newspaper clippings in it. She would sit with me and leaf through each page, talking about the newspaper story and about what was going on in her and her family’s life then. Those stories really made that time period come alive for me and that has always stayed with me.

JGT:  The book is about Philadelphia about 100 years ago. What things about Philly are the same, and what things are drastically different than they were then?

blwlitho_tPETE: What is drastically different is the disappearance of the industrial base of the city and the great shipbuilding yards. All of that is gone now. At the time of WWI, Philadelphia was nicknamed “The Workshop of the World” and it really lived up to that name. Those industries and textile mills, like Baldwin Locomotive (above right), E.G. Budd Company, Stetson Hat, Jacob Reed and Ford Motor Company produced millions of tons of supplies, weapons, ammunition, artillery shells and other material that helped win the war.

What still exists are many of the buildings that played a role in the relief and the charitable organizations set up to send aid to Belgium and France when the war began and then helped our soldiers, sailors and their families after America joined the war. Most of these were private homes, many on Walnut and Chestnut Streets. Of course they aren’t private homes anymore. They are apartments houses or businesses but the facades are still there. When I pass those buildings I try to imagine the men and women, some in uniform and some in their civilian clothes of the time, going about their work and lives.

JGT: What was something you learned while you were researching the book that you hadn’t known before and were really fascinated by?

PETE: I guess it would be how much of an immigrant city Philadelphia was then. In 1914 Philadelphia’s population was about 1.5 million. 60% of those were either foreign born or the children of foreign born persons. Philadelphia had the reputation as an old, staid, WASP city but in reality it was much more culturally diverse. There was an enormous Irish immigrant community, most of whom came over in the 1840s and 1850s. Of course, there was also a large German community. But in the last decade of the 19th Century and the early years of the 20th new waves of immigrants began arriving. They came from Italy, Poland, Lithuania and Russia.These people settled in the river wards with the Italians living mostly in South Philadelphia. By 1914 South Philadelphia was the most congested area of the city with 200 people per square acre. So then, much like now, Philadelphia’s population was made up mostly of recently arrived immigrants.

JGT: Of course, when the soldiers returned, the Spanish flu came with them, wreaking havoc on American cities. How hard was Philadelphia hit? 

spit warning dockPETE: The “Spanish influenza” was the most devastating pandemic since the Black Death in the  Middle Ages. Worldwide, 50 million died from the flu. In America over 675,000 people were killed by the disease. Of all American cities and for that matter all of North America, Philadelphia was the worst hit city. A couple of factors came into play causing this. First, city officials, including those in the Bureau of Health, knew the flu was present in the city in July. It was already reported at the Navy Yard where it probably first arrived with sailors from Boston. But even knowing this, the city went ahead with plans for a Liberty Loan Parade on September 28, 1918. Two hundred thousand people lined the streets and cheered on those marching including contingents of sailors and marines from theNavy Yard. It was a perfect breeding ground to spread the disease. The flu spread like wildfire. Half a million Philadelphians became infected. Its spread and the devastation it caused was also facilitated by the fact that over 2/3 of the city’s doctors, nurses and other medical professionals were away serving in the war. The city was practically defenseless. Eventually dead bodies overwhelmed the one city morgue. Four temporary ones were opened. In some sections of the city bodies were left on street corners or left outside the gates of cemeteries. There are reports of Catholic priests and Protestant ministers taking wagons through their parishes actually calling for people to bring out their dead.

A conservative estimate is that 16,000 people died in Philadelphia from the flu in about a five week period. Infections began to subside towards the end of October. By the Armistice on November 11, 1918, it was practically over. I believe the joy people experienced from the ending of the war helped them put out of their minds the terror they experienced during those 3 months.

JGT: How did World War I change the city of Philadelphia?

PETE: From what I learned, Philadelphia prior to the war was an incredibly socially stratified city. This stratification was first and foremost along economic class. But of course also on ethnic lines. The wealthy and upper middle class families were Anglo-Saxon Protestant and they just did not socially interact with the Irish, Italian, Polish, Eastern European Jewish and other immigrant groups, let alone with the African American community.

3732The war changed that. Men from all classes were either drafted or enlisted and had to associate with each other as equals. But this mingling was even more pronounced among women. Women of all classes joined charitable and relief organizations to support the war effort. In doing so they began working side by side with women they would otherwise never share a meal with or talk with about their children or their lives or even the weather. The wealthiest women in the city were spending long hours with working class and poor women sewing sweaters and socks for men overseas, making bandages, packing comfort kits, visiting the families of soldiers wounded or killed, and working on Liberty Loan campaigns. They learned about each other’s lives, struggles, fears, and joys.

I think that environment helped to change attitudes about class that existed before the war. I don’t mean to imply it went away entirely. It certainly did not. But I think after the war there was less of it. Members of the old established Philadelphia families and the children of the immigrant families saw themselves differently and each group I think after the war saw the other as just as much Philadelphians as they were.

You can buy Pete’s book here.


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